Another way to sneak large molecules into a cell is to tag them with a short protein that can penetrate the cell membrane and drag the larger cargo along with it. Alternatively, DNA or proteins can be packaged into synthetic nanoparticles that can enter cells. However, these systems often need to be re-engineered depending on the type of cell and material being delivered. Also, with some nanoparticles much of the material ends up trapped in protective sacs called endosomes inside the cell, and there can be potential toxic side effects.
Electroporation, which involves giving cells a jolt of electricity that opens up the cell membrane, is a more general approach but can be damaging to both cells and the material being delivered.
The new MIT system appears to work for many cell types so far, the researchers have successfully tested it with more than a dozen types, including both human and mouse cells. It also works in cells taken directly from human patients, which are usually much more difficult to manipulate than human cell lines grown specifically for lab research.
The new device builds on previous work by Jensen and Langer's labs, in which they used microinjection to force large molecules into cells as they flowed through a microfluidic device. This wasn't as fast as the researchers would have liked, but during these studies, they discovered that when a cell is squeezed through a narrow tube, small holes open in the cell membrane, allowing nearby molecules to diffuse into the cell.
To take advantage of that, the researchers built rectangular microfluidic chips, about the size of a quarter, with 40 to 70 parallel channels.
|Contact: Caroline McCall, MIT Media Relations|
Massachusetts Institute of Technology